Reginald Birch, the book illustrator who had to keep apologizing

Reginald Birch, one of the top book illustrators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spent a good part of his life apologizing for what he had done.

Birch was a first-class artist. His skill as a draughtsman is evident in the illustrations that he drew for the more than 40 other books he illustrated during his long career. He was also a painter and portrait artist of note.

As one of the chief illustrators for St. Nicholas magazine, Birch took the famous drawings of Santa Claus that Thomas Nast created and reworked them into the Santa Claus that we know today. His book illustrations set the standard for the period in which he worked, and he was much admired and imitated.

But his big splash as an illustrator was one that he regretted until the day he died. Birch drew the illustrations for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy and thereby created a fashion storm that swept the nation. It was something for which little boys of the time never forgave him.

The main character of that book, Cedric Errol, is a small, sweet child who is thoughtful, perceptive, and morally incorruptible. Neither rank nor poverty affected his demeanor or equanimity. The illustrations Birch created for this book were based on the descriptions Burnett included in the book and on a photograph of Burnett’s son Vivian that she had sent to Birch. Cedric Errol had long, curly hair and wore velvet suits with large lace collars and cuffs.

In short, Little Lord Fauntleroy looked more like a girl than a boy. In fact, in the stage productions that followed the book, the main character could be – and often was – played by a girl.

American mothers took this concept of the near-perfect little male to heart and decided that creating such little gentlemen within their own homes would be as simple as changing their wardrobes. A fashion fire was thus ignited that never completely went away.

Many of the little boys, however, thought differently and rebelled – some by running away, some by burning the clothes that had been purchased for them, some by giving their clothes to poorer children — there are many such stories. 

Birch continued to work for the next thirty years, but by the second decade of the twentieth century, his career had faded. By the 1930s, he was living in poverty. He had a brief resurgence in 1933 with his illustrations of Louis Untermeyer’s The Last Pirate,  which led to additional commissions. Failing eyesight forced him into retirement in 1941, and he died two years later at the age of 87.

Birch never escaped the specter of Little Lord Fauntleroy. That book, he said, “was one of my early crimes for which I am still making explanation.”

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The illustration above is one drawn by Birch with his signature at the lower right.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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